By Nora Firestone
This article was recently published in Inside Business magazine.
Feeling mid-lifeish back in 1991, local newspaper reporter Marjorie Mayfield Jackson sensed the tug to “make a difference” somewhere in this big world. So she reflected in her quiet little corner of it for six months, watching the mullet jump, “the great blue herons stalking the wetland grasses” and the night herons roosting in her mulberry tree from her yard on a cove of the Elizabeth River.
“I felt privileged to live in a very beautiful, very special corner of the Elizabeth River . . . where wildlife seemed undisturbed,” she recently told me, but “at the same time it was very painful to know that this was such a dirty river, the fish had cancer.
“Over the course of the six months,” Jackson shared with Mutual of Omaha CQ insurance company’s Aha Moment film crew in June, “I just came to this realization (that) what I really wanted to do with my life, what would really make a difference, would be to clean up the river.”
So Jackson quit her job to found the Elizabeth River Project, with three other volunteers, and has since grown the organization to engage more than 200 businesses and schools through its River Star initiatives for watershed cleanups, marine habitat restoration and ongoing stewardship of local waterways. Since ’97 River Star Businesses “have cumulatively reduced pollution by more than 215 million pounds . . . and have restored or conserved more than 1,100 acres of urban wildlife habitat,” Jackson said. E.R.P. recently launched the River Star Homes program, bringing residents of the watershed onboard. The “over-arching goal,” Jackson noted, “is to make the Elizabeth River safe for swimming and fishing by 2020.”
The 2011 Aha Moment tour will feature inspiring, life-changing “Aha” moment stories, taped inside the campaign’s mobile film studio during 25 stops nationwide, including those of 44 people in Hampton Roads, Va., recorded during the June 13 and 14 landing at Norfolk’s Waterside. Folks can view those at: http://ahamoment.com/moments/search?page=1&search[q]=&search[tour_stop]=25
Organizers contacted many of us directly, having searched in advance for locals who they thought modeled positive action and might inspire others with personal insights.
I felt honored when they asked me to share the inspiration behind the creation of ThankingOfYou.com, the Web-based forum for posting and receiving messages of thanks for the people who’ve made a difference in our lives. The deepest sense of gratitude, I believe, thrives at a level whereby one has recognized the goodness in someone or something, affirmed the significance of that goodness in one’s own life, and strives to honor that affirmation by acting accordingly for the benefit of oneself and of others. It’s important to express it and it’s important to receive it. Gratitude’s a powerful motivator.
I call it the Transistor Virtue because in cultivating that deepest sense of gratitude one becomes intentional in receiving the goodness as meaningful and switching it to a path of amplification. Like the sounds of music, spoken poetry or even herons on the river, this experience moves people to think, feel and act. I’ve long proposed that “gratitude is the most sustainable and renewable of all human resources” for its inherent power to spark positivity and naturally fuel its continuum. And just as I’d suspected, so many “Aha” movements have been inspired and fueled by the power of gratitude and the subsequent desire to make a difference in the lives of others.
“I think gratitude springs from love and wonder,” Jackson said. “I was motivated by a mix of gratitude—for the solace and the beauty and the unending wonder of (the Elizabeth River)—juxtaposed with a sorrow, a shame and awareness of a need that was not being addressed.
“To come from a place of gratitude is to come from a place of grace, instead of from a place of anger,” she added. Fear and anger “motivate for the short term, but only love motivates long-term change.
“Love spawns gratitude, or vice versa.”
A blend of fear, disappointment and, yes, gratitude, inspired now-retired Chesapeake police captain Gene Saunders to establish Project Lifesaver International, CQ a rapid-response lifesaving program that provides the technology, education, training and network necessary for successful search and rescue missions involving children and adults who are prone to wander.
Saunders recalled “several (cases) where we were unable to find them” back in his days as a standard search and rescue specialist. “It keeps coming back to you,” he said. “When you have an unsuccessful search, that weighs heavy on you. It’s just a tremendous, draining, depressing feeling.
“Then you see the uplift on people’s faces, and the appreciation,” when their loved ones have been found, he said. “And that’s just fuel for the soul.”
That fuel sparked the impetus of Project Lifesaver in 1998. The organization, now affiliated with 1,200 law enforcement and safety agencies within 46 states and abroad, just celebrated its 2,400th rescue.
But it hasn’t been easy, Saunders said. He encountered mostly nay-sayers at the start and plenty of obstacles to his overall vision along the way.
“There’s always some mountain to climb,” he said. “There are some low times when you wonder, ‘Why am I doing this; why am I fighting so many battles?’”
But Saunders has a passion and he’s been able to remain focused on those people and agencies that’ve supported his mission.
“Project Lifesaver is not a one-person show,” he explained. “It takes many people to believe in what you’re doing and jump in with both feet.” He feels deep gratitude for the support they give “because they don’t have to,” he said. “That’s when you feel a different level of elation, or gratitude. You’re grateful because this person believes in you without any (apparent) reason.” In other words, it’s a gift—not necessarily earned; not guaranteed to offer the giver anything in return. Except, maybe, the heartfelt gratitude of beneficiaries.
As letters arrive from families and agencies, thanking Project Lifesaver for its immeasurable gifts, that “keeps you going on that level that you need to be on,” Saunders said. “When you have a passion for something it takes a lot of energy and you don’t realize it. The voice of gratitude re-inspires you; it just kind of rejuvenates you. It’s the fuel that keeps me going.”
Musician MaryAnn Toboz’s “Aha” moment landed by that very expression.
“Thank you,” an elderly woman had told her after Toboz had performed at a local nursing home. “Please don’t forget us.”
Toboz felt the depth of appreciation from a lonely resident and decided she wouldn’t forget them. Instead, she’d build a community of like-minded artists to provide frequent and purposeful entertainment to elder seniors. Since establishing Tidewater Arts Outreach in 2003, Toboz’s mission has grown to incorporate an array of traveling performing and visual arts programs, serving about 70 locations throughout Hampton Roads, including nursing homes, shelters, crisis centers, hospitals and programs for people with special needs. Rather than perform to their audiences the artists engage them.
“It’s evolved to really sharing the gift of (creating) art to self-express” and to help professionals “understand the value of art in healthcare,” Toboz said. “Artists have gifts and they’re meant to be shared. And they know it,” she explained. “When you’re able to share a gift, and when it’s genuinely appreciated, that is so rewarding.
“You have to be in tune with what people want,” she added. Therefore, the expression of gratitude is a guiding force.
Toboz said she works hard to show gratitude to her board of directors, artists and all who “give so much” to help to sustain her mission. “(Gratitude) has changed my life,” she said. “I’m so grateful to be in this position” to help others.
Nora Firestone, firstname.lastname@example.org
Nora Firestone is a Virginia Beach-based journalist and the founder of ThankingOfYou.com, the free Web-based forum for posting and receiving stories of gratitude (messages of thanks) to recognize, affirm and honor the people who’ve made a difference in our lives. She can be reached via e-mail at email@example.com. Visit www.ThankingOfYou.com for more information and to thank those who’ve made a difference in your life.